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Victory appeared to have slipped away from Otago Boys' High School. With just a few minutes remaining, the defending champion trailed Southland Boys' High School 24-22 in the final of the Fulton Hogan-sponsored Highlanders First XV competition at Littlebourne on Saturday.
The Southlanders had tackled like demons and had got into a position to win through courage, tenacity and by taking every opportunity on offer against their bigger opponents.
But Otago Boys' went back to its massive forward pack and rumbled the ball 50m up the field. Southland Boys' managed to get under the ball-carrier and prevented the try being scored. But from the ensuing 5m scrum, Otago Boys' launched another grinding raid towards the line, inching closer and closer.
Eventually, captain Sekonaia Pole crashed over to score the match-winner in the dying seconds of the game. Classy second five-eighth Sio Tomkinson converted to stretch the final margin to 29-24.
Coach Ryan Martin was both relieved and in awe of his charges. Otago Boys' had a kick charged down shortly after halftime and trailed 21-7. To come back from 14 points down showed plenty of character, he said.
''Most teams would be gone,'' Martin said.
''But there is something pretty special about this team. That is something we had last year as well where we can be down but fight our way back.
''It show massive spirit. The boys didn't want to hang the jersey up [for the season]. They wanted to wear it again and they will in the South Island final.''
Otago Boys' will play Marlborough Boys' College at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Sunday. The match will serve as the curtain-raiser for Otago's first defence of the Ranfurly Shield, against Hawkes Bay.
The winner of the South Island final will progress to the national semifinals.
Martin was keen to emphasis how well Southland Boys' had played.
''That is exactly what we was expecting from them. They've had a great season ... and they came to play today.''
No 8 Jordan Stewart was impressive for the visiting side. He got through a lot of defensive work and made some telling breaks. Left winger Jono Hayes was in fine form with the boot.
He landed three penalties and converted a fine team try to help Southland Boys' lead 16-7 at halftime.
Openside flanker Josh Mackie was taken to Dunedin Hospital with a suspected broken ankle. The sight of him being supported to the sideline was no doubt motivating for Southland Boys'.
First-five eighth Shawn Henderson charged a kick down shortly after the resumption and scored in the corner.
Otago Boys' needed to scored next and did. It came in predictable fashion, with replacement flanker Riley McDowall fighting his way to the line.
The sides swapped penalties before prop Jermaine Ainsley emerged from the bottom of a pile of bodies having scored for the home side.
Tomkinson missed the conversion which would have levelled the scores.
Highlanders First XV
Otago Boys' HS 29
Tui Katoa, Riley McDowall, Jermaine Ainsley, Sekonaia Pole tries; Sio Tomkinson 3 con, pen
Southland Boys' HS 24
Jake Stewart, Shawn Henderson tries; Jono Hayes con, 4 pen
Halftime: Southland Boys' 16-7.